Notes from the underground by caveman Greg Brick
What fascinates Greg Brick is what the rest of us mostly never see. The Como Park author has made his name with books that explore the hidden places and the shadowy recesses of the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota.
His latest book, “Minnesota Caves: History & Lore” (Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2017), came out in August. Brick says it’s the first comprehensive guide to caves—both natural and manmade—in the state, since the National Speleological Society published a survey back in 1980.
“There have been a huge number of developments since then,” he says. That’s partly because new caves have been discovered but also because caves, more than most landmarks, are subject to the vagaries of an ever-shifting landscape whose human stewards rarely make cave preservation a priority and sometimes actively seek to seal caves or even obliterate them from public memory.
That applies even to the most famous caves in the state. Take Carver’s Cave, located on the banks of the Mississippi near downtown St. Paul. It’s not particularly long or especially spectacular, but Brick says, “It’s the first [Minnesota] cave to enter the published literature.” One long-ago local newsman described it as resembling “the roof of a man’s mouth seen through a looking glass,” but Brick quotes an old caver’s adage: “The shorter the cave, the longer its history.”
In 1766, Carver’s Cave became the first cave in Minnesota to be explored by Europeans. Englishman Jonathan Carver carved the British royal arms on its soft sandstone walls that year, thereby initiating a graffiti tradition that persists among some cave enthusiasts to this day. Since then, the cave has been subjected to continual cycles of ballyhoo followed by neglect. Described in the 19th century in ever more enthusiastic terms by writers who often had never actually set foot in the cave itself, Carver’s Cave was alternately celebrated for its Indian petroglyphs and allowed to fill with refuse when railroad construction encroached on the landscape.
“A cave will cover itself up,” Brick says.“[It] was lost and rediscovered once a generation.”
Nearly 100 years ago, Carver’s Cave even became the focus of a brief commercial war when rival businessmen attempted to develop the cave’s interior as a tourist attraction. “There were incidents involving dynamite,” says Brick, but it was changing tastes in entertainment that led the cave to fall once more into obscurity. Now the centerpiece of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, it was sealed by the city of St. Paul as recently as 2015.
Since 1988, Brick, 54, has explored every existing cave described in his book, but unlike many amateur cavers, he has no boyhood adventures to look back on when he talks about his interest in speleology. “I grew up in Highland Park, but even as a teen I never explored the caves,” he says.
Brick notes that plenty of area residents “slake their thirst” for cave exploration by spending their teenage years attending illicit keg parties (and more) underground. Brick, on the other hand, developed his interest in the lower depths as a graduate student in geology at the University of Minnesota. By then his interests were more scholarly than recreational. “By the time I got into caves, I didn’t see the kegs; I saw the stratification,” is how he puts it.
When he’s not exploring caves or writing about them, Brick works for the Minnesota DNR as a hydrologist. Even though he’s more interested in science than underground thrills, he has had more than one close call. There was the time he was exploring a tunnel he believed led to the well-known Fountain Cave near downtown St. Paul.
“This was back before the Internet, when we had no accurate weather forecasting,” he says. Unbeknownst to Brick, it suddenly started raining—hard—outside. Water quickly filled the tunnel, and Brick was lucky to be able to make a quick exit before the level rose too high. “It was dead silent in the tunnel and [then suddenly] the water started roaring [through].”
On another occasion, Brick and fellow explorers were in downtown Minneapolis, trying to find a route through the storm sewer lines to Schieks Cave, which is located 75 feet below the surface. They had pried off a manhole cover and Brick started climbing down the rebar-rungs cemented into the side of the deep shaft. Unfortunately, they hadn’t reckoned on the corrosive power of sewer gas on metal. “I made it down 20 feet, and then the rungs started crumbling under my feet. . . . So I started coming back up and the rungs began to crumble off above me, too.” Brick made it back to surface by climbing up the residual nubs of metal, narrowly avoiding a plunge into the abyss.
It is adventures like that that helped put an end to Brick’s days of active cave exploration. “I’ve seen them all, by now,” he says.
It also explains why Brick deliberately conceals the location of some of the caves he describes in his book, and why he politely declines all requests for more information about them. He’s concerned about safety—both for the public and for the caves. “To protect the caves,” he says, “I can’t give away locations.” And that also means that he won’t be giving out directions to the exact entry point for the 5-mile-long man-made tunnel that leads from one end of Lake Como all the way to the banks of the Mississippi in downtown St. Paul.
For would-be cave explorers, Brick has some advice: “Join a recognized caving club like the Minnesota Speleological Survey or the Minnesota Caving Club.” And while you’re at it, don’t call yourself a “spelunker.”
“That [word] is associated with the people who use their cellphone lights to navigate underground . . .” right up to the moment where they have to be rescued—at considerable public expense—by the authorities. The correct term for what Brick does is “caver.”
As for the future, Brick has turned his sights back toward the academic side of his profession. His next project is a technical textbook on the caves of Minnesota and surrounding states. “I guarantee it’s not going to be a best-seller,” he says.
You can find out more about Greg Brick’s work and his upcoming speaking dates at his website, www.GregBrick.org
Professor Combs goes underground
At least one resident of St. Anthony Park found fame and professional fortune in the musty recesses of the sandstone caves catacombed throughout the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown St. Paul.
In 1925, Willes Barnes Combs, newly appointed professor of the dairy industry, arrived at the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota and moved into a fine, spacious house on Chelmsford Avenue. One day a few years later, while buying mushrooms grown in a cave on South Wabash Street, Combs was struck by similarities between the atmosphere of the Minnesota cave and the famous French caves where the King of Cheeses—Roquefort itself!—was ripened.
Could Minnesota put itself on the gourmet map as a center of sophisticated cheese production?
Combs was not one to shy away from a challenge. As the Great Depression loomed, Minnesotans were hardly known for their sophisticated palates or their fine-dining traditions, but there was one vital ingredient that our state had: milk. Desperate dairy farmers were producing it faster than cash-strapped Americans could consume it. In the depths of the Depression in 1933, Combs persuaded the state of Minnesota to give him a $500 grant with which to convert some of that milk into Roquefort cheese.
Only he couldn’t call it Roquefort. No sooner had Combs leased caves from the Villaume Box & Lumber Co. (along what is now Plato Boulevard) and set up business, than a visitor from the French Foreign Trade delegation swooped down on Minnesota to inform the upstart cheesemaker that there was only one cheese in the world that could legally be called Roquefort, and that came from la belle France, monsieur!
And there the matter might have ended, except for World War II. Among the lesser victims of the Nazi war machine were French luxury exports. Suddenly, Minnesota had the American blue cheese market all to itself. Business boomed, and no less than the New York Times declared that St. Paul was “well on its way to become the blue cheese capital of the world.”
Although peacetime did not bring an end to the production of Minnesota Blue, as Combs’ cheese was known, the state never again rivaled France for leadership of the upscale fromage market.
Meanwhile, manufacturing methods had modernized, and cheesemakers no longer depended on caves for aging their products. By the time of Combs’ death in 1959, the Villaume caves, where it all began, were quiet and soon to be abandoned once more.
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Learn more about Willes B. Combs and the St. Paul cheese caves in Greg Brick’s article “St. Paul Underground” from the Fall 2003 issue of Ramsey County History, published by the Ramsey County Historical Society.
Judy Woodward is a reference librarian at the Roseville Library and a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.